City aims to catch culinary gravy train

The Baltimore Sun

Would you drive hundreds of miles for a slice of Matthew's stuffed pizza?

Would you hop a plane if a Faidley's crab cake were waiting on the other side?

How about building a vacation around the red-sauced enclave of Little Italy - sound reasonable?

Local tourism officials think so. They believe Baltimore, like San Francisco and New York and New Orleans, packs the sort of flavor people will travel for, and they're aggressively - some might say ambitiously - marketing the city as a five-star food destination.

They're hoping to tap into the phenomenon that is culinary tourism, where people consider restaurants the entree of a trip and relegate sites and surroundings to side-dish status.

"There are a lot of cities in America envious of our Little Italy area, and we've got all these waterfront restaurants. There's Greektown, seafood, great delis," says Tom Noonan, chairman and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association and a self-described "foodie." "We just need to get that message out to people - it's a reason why people travel."

The culinary tourism movement has blossomed in recent years, evolving from the weekend sport of food fanatics to a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade association.

Since the movie Sideways spotlighted a wine geek and his buddy sniffing, swirling and spitting their way through California on a quest for pinot noir, Santa Barbara has been inundated by would-be connoisseurs who want to drink what the Sideways guys drank and eat where they ate.

"Everyone likes food - it's a common denominator," says Erik Wolf, president of the Oregon-based International Culinary Tourism Association. "Not everyone enjoys golfing or going to museums or shopping, but everyone has to eat."

According to the Travel Industry Association, which did a study earlier this year with Gourmet magazine and Wolf's group, 27 million people engaged in a culinary activity while traveling in the past three years. Experts expect that number to more than triple in the near future.

And all these people will pay to play. "Deliberate" food travelers, the study found, spend an average of $1,271 per trip - half on eating.

To catch this crowd's attention, Noonan and BACVA are courting the Food Network and the Travel Channel, both of which air a number of programs featuring celebrities who eat their way through cities. A Travel Channel show that will showcase restaurant weeks across the country has shown interest in Baltimore, Noonan says.

They're also trying to get stories in national food magazines, considering advertising in those publications, bringing top city chefs along on sales calls and promoting Baltimore's restaurant week - hoping word of mouth will carry beyond the city limits.

They also plan to target niche tourists, trying to promote what might appeal to gays and lesbians - who have nearly 10 percent more disposable income than the average traveler - as well as to African-Americans and Hispanics.

But a number of places have already refined their pitch. California, Florida and New York are the top food destinations, the travel industry survey found. Manhattan offers a tour of Chinatown complete with dim sum and chickens strung up in storefront windows. A walking tour of New Orleans' French Quarter will explain the difference between Creole and Cajun. And in the Napa Valley, gourmets can check in at a wine country bed-and-breakfast and take cooking classes.

Wolf thinks Baltimore will need a more sophisticated proposal to attract the true foodies.

"Baltimore has this Mid-Atlantic, laid back, kind of groovy, historic, very down-to-earth vibe, that to me is what the Baltimore brand is," he says. "You have to lead with your strengths. A lot of the coastal cities have great seafood - no one is going to choose Baltimore over Richmond or Norfolk or Charlotte because of its seafood. But the whole Maryland crab cake thing - that could be something that no one else has.

"It should make people say, 'Hey, Baltimore, wow, I haven't thought of that before.'"

The editor of the local Zagats guide, Marty Katz, agrees that authentic local chow is Baltimore's edge - not elegant haute cuisine that might taste just as highbrow in Washington, Philadelphia or Boston.

"If the pitch is that our genuine local and neighborhood food is unbeatable, I agree," Katz says. "They don't have Faidley's crab cakes made by Mrs. Devine. They don't have Nick and his son Michael at Samos and their interesting wait staff. None of them have Matthew's pizza and its crab deep dish pizza."

Katz said he took a Washington lawyer this week to Faidley's at Lexington Market for a jumbo lump crab cake. He directs almost all of his visitors there, including R.W. Apple, the famous New York Times food maven who died last year. Apple called the establishment's crab cake "the single best crab dish in Baltimore, if not the Western Hemisphere."

"She was suitably impressed but very overdressed," Katz says of his lawyer friend. "Her exact words were, 'I've died and gone to heaven.' And she's eaten all over the world. She's a hotshot lawyer."

Lars Ruisins, who founded the organization Baltimore Foodies, is considering starting eating tours of the city. He buys the concept that Baltimore is becoming a culinary hot spot, but says the tourists are never going to get at the good stuff if they hover at the chain-heavy Inner Harbor.

"You need to get them away from the Inner Harbor, over to Federal Hill to Cross Street Market where they can get a half-dozen oysters and watch the game right next to a sushi place and over from the egg roll guy."

Chef Timothy Dean, who opened a bistro with his name on it in Fells Point, takes a bit of an issue with the idea that Baltimore is all diners and dives. When he accompanied Noonan on a sales call in the Washington suburbs, he made chestnut soup, stuffed squab breast and chocolate souffle.

"You got a lot of great concepts that are out here. You got a lot of diversity," says Dean, who says he's asked "almost every day" why he decided to bring his pedigreed resume to Baltimore. "It's just been growing each year - I think we're on the cusp."

Wolf preaches that the draw of food alone has the power of elevating a second-tier destination - which Baltimore is. It doesn't have to be white tablecloth dining and it doesn't have to be backed by a celebrity chef; it just needs to be something original - something unforgettable seasoned with local flavor.

"Culinary tourism is about what's unique and memorable, not what's pretentious and exclusive," Wolf says. "It is about the place where you can get the stack of pancakes for $5 - there just has to be some there there."

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